Thursday, September 3, 2009

City Break: Amsterdam

Last weekend was the final bank holiday weekend of the year in the UK, which meant it was the perfect time to fulfil a travel goal that has been high on my list for some time: Amsterdam! Which I have to admit is something that appeals to me less and less the more time goes by (read: the older I get.) So it was high time to take advantage and go.

Amsterdam’s reputation comes largely from its extremely liberal attitude towards, well, almost everything. The city is a miracle of what liberalism can accomplish: bikes everywhere vastly reducing traffic and pollution, power supplied by windmills along the coast, and an extremely tolerant atmosphere that even leaves London behind. The legalized marijuana and prostitution is simply just an extension of this overall attitude that is extremely refreshing.

The goal of our trip was very simple: relaxation. We weren’t out to run from tourist spot to tourist spot, we just wanted to take a nice deep breath and chill out in the middle of a very stressful work/move time. I started reading High Life, British Air’s inflight magazine, on the trip over and by the time we set down a mere 45 minutes later I was already much more laid back.

We spent the first night getting to know the area around our hotel, which was thankfully right in the middle of the city center, so we were never far from anything and could easily walk to everything we wanted to see and do. The high value of the Euro against the Pound was the only unfortunate part; the prices in Amsterdam were some of the highest we’d seen in Euros anywhere.

But it didn’t interfere with our fun. We found a great Mexican restaurant (itself enough of a rarity in Europe), had some Dutch pancakes, and simply sat and watched the world go by. We hit the Anne Frank Haus, where Anne and her family hid during World War 2, as sobering an experience as I’ve had. Amsterdam features two great art museums, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, which we hit up as well to round out our cultural experience.

The city itself has an excellent vibe that’s difficult to describe. The leaning buildings, some five stories high, loom over the brick streets and wide canals and everything seems ultra-modern but relatively unchanged since it was built in the 1600s and 1700s (at least in the city center, outside it becomes far more modern.) Yeah, we walked through the Red Light District and it’s as sleazy as you might expect. The two main churches in town became victims of Calvinist reform and were stripped of anything ostentatious, leaving their base architecture to admire without any of the distracting trappings. There was also a really fascinating Catholic Church – Our Lord in the Attic – which is named because it was indeed in the attic of a house after the Catholics were forced underground (or high aboveground in this case.) Not something you see every holiday.

The trip was a great time and I’m glad we did it when we did. We’ve got a few more lined up in the future, some higher priorities than others. Hopefully we’ll get a few good blog posts out of it too.

And here's the slideshow:

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